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Foster condemns 'disgraceful scenes' at west Belfast bonfire removal after 26 officers injured

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Riot Police and contractors remove wood for a bonfire in the Distillery Street area of west Belfast on August 8th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Riot Police and contractors remove wood for a bonfire in the Distillery Street area of west Belfast on August 8th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Riot Police and contractors remove wood for a bonfire in the Distillery Street area of west Belfast on August 8th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

First Minister Arlene Foster has condemned the "disgraceful scenes" at a bonfire removal in west Belfast on Saturday afternoon.

Police came under attack in the Distillery Street area from large groups of youths throwing petrol bombs, masonry and other missiles.

They were in attendance to support contractors who had been tasked by the landowner to remove the bonfire material.

At least 26 police officers suffered injuries during the incident and were receiving treatment as of Saturday evening.

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Riot Police and contractors remove wood for a bonfire in the Distillery Street area of west Belfast on August 8th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Riot Police and contractors remove wood for a bonfire in the Distillery Street area of west Belfast on August 8th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Riot Police and contractors remove wood for a bonfire in the Distillery Street area of west Belfast on August 8th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Pictures from the scene showed officers in full riot gear engaging with local young people.

"Our thoughts are with the injured officers," the DUP leader said.

Mrs Foster said it was "important to see prosecutions in due course" and that "a message must be sent that this is not acceptable".

PSNI Superintendent Melanie Jones said footage from evidence gathering cameras would be reviewed to identify those involved.

She called the violent scenes "completely unacceptable".

“We will continue to work with the local community, representatives and other partners to address this issue, but it is disappointing that some young people and their guardians are not listening to our repeated warnings," Superintendent Jones said.

“People who choose to engage in criminal and anti-social behaviour must understand it is unacceptable and must stop. People have a right to live in peace and to feel safe in their communities."

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Riot Police and contractors remove wood for a bonfire in the Distillery Street area of west Belfast on August 8th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Riot Police and contractors remove wood for a bonfire in the Distillery Street area of west Belfast on August 8th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Riot Police and contractors remove wood for a bonfire in the Distillery Street area of west Belfast on August 8th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Superintendent Jones urged parents to take responsibility for their children.

“Parents and guardians have an important obligation to keep young people safe by knowing where they are going and who they are with," she said.

"Young people must understand the dangers of getting involved in behaviour which could result in them injuring themselves or others, or ultimately, ending up with a criminal record.”

Justice Minister Naomi Long said the incident was "absolutely disgraceful conduct".

"Officers should not face this kind of violence as they try to keep people safe. Residents are sick of this nonsense every year - they want peace and quiet I hope that no-one was seriously injured and that they all make a full and speedy recovery," the Alliance leader said.

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Riot Police and contractors remove wood for a bonfire in the Distillery Street area of west Belfast on August 8th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Riot Police and contractors remove wood for a bonfire in the Distillery Street area of west Belfast on August 8th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Riot Police and contractors remove wood for a bonfire in the Distillery Street area of west Belfast on August 8th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne said his "thoughts are with our injured colleagues who faced shocking violence just trying to do their job".

NI Secretary Brandon Lewis said "officers should never have to face this kind of violence".

"They work every day to keep us all safe. I wish all the officers speedy recoveries," he said.

"Huge thanks for their efforts to keep communities safe and peaceful."

Police Federation Chair Mark Lindsay said police officers were "sick of being a punchbag for the failures of society".

“Once again, police officers have been drawn into the middle of a row over what should or shouldn’t take place," he said.

“What happened posed real risks to the lives of officers. Petrol bombing is a clear attempt to murder or maim officers who were there to uphold the law."

The operation was the second incident at a bonfire removal in as many days after police were targeted with missiles in the Lower Falls area on Friday.

However no officers suffered injuries during that operation.

Bonfires are being gathered across Northern Ireland to mark the anniversary of internment later this month.

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Riot Police and contractors remove wood for a bonfire in the Distillery Street area of west Belfast on August 8th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Riot Police and contractors remove wood for a bonfire in the Distillery Street area of west Belfast on August 8th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Riot Police and contractors remove wood for a bonfire in the Distillery Street area of west Belfast on August 8th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Last year a standoff developed between young people and police in the New Lodge area of North Belfast

A PSNI spokeswoman said officers are assisting other agencies.

"As a police service we have been clear in our position that we will always support other agencies to carry out their statutory functions and this includes the lawful removal of bonfire materials," she said.

Belfast Telegraph